Halfway Over – Chapter Three

Lilly was as good as her word. With a parting nod to Beanbag, we left the bar and I found myself once again swimming through the crowds, though this time with a welcome partner. Lilly led the way, parting swaths of people aside with remarkable ease. I had no idea where we were going, only that with my hand in hers, I was prepared to follow her to the ends of the earth.

We passed by the hamburger stand and the mustachioed owner I had unwittingly annoyed earlier. Lilly gave my hand a squeeze, then let go and approached the stand. She must’ve been hungry. My stomach gurgled. Perhaps it was time for the greasy food for me, as well. I called out after her, “If you want a burger I can get you one, no problem.” I pointed my thumb to the end of the line.

She turned her head but didn’t slow down. “Why? I’m already doing that.” She approached the side of the stand, completely bypassing the long line of grumbling people. No one seemed to notice. I shook my head. City folk were so wrapped up in themselves. If she had cut to the front instead, they’d have chewed her head off. I watched her get the burger guy’s attention. Her back was to me and I couldn’t hear what they said, but I got the impression he wasn’t happy about someone not in line and wasting his time. He had two burgers wrapped up and was in the process of handing them over to the woman at the front of the line. Lilly held up two fingers. He shook his head. She balled her other hand into a fist and brought the two fingers closer to his face with emphasis. He shrugged. And then handed over the two wrapped burgers. Incredibly, the other woman just stood there politely, looking around like she was waiting on a bus. The man turned away from Lilly and began remaking the other woman’s food. Lilly swirled around, a satisfied grin on her face then came back to me.

“Here,” she said, pushing the burger toward my face. “I could tell you were getting hungry.”

Had my stomach growled that loudly? “Thanks,” I said. Then something occurred to me. “I didn’t even see you give money to that guy.”

She shrugged. “He knew me.”

A flicker of jealousy wormed its way through my insides. I took a bite of the burger, hoping to drown the jealous worm in grease.

She must’ve seen the look on my face. After a few moments, she smirked and said, “I’m not that kind of person.”

She wasn’t? Then why had she picked me up nearly sight unseen? It’s not like I was doing any modelling or running for playboy of the year. She kept an eye on me as we walked, and I had the distinct impression she was studying my reaction. Maybe I should just ask her, instead of letting speculation and doubt sour the evening.

“So—“ I began.

“Why you?” She finished.

“Yeah…”

“I started to bring that up back at the bar. But we both got a bit distracted.”

I nodded. The Gaelic poetry thing. I had forgotten the original track of that conversation before I had derailed it by talking about her performance.

“You’ve got a dumb sort of honesty about you.”

“That’s…” I shook my head. “That’s pretty blunt.”

“Sometimes being blunt is the only way to clear away the bullshit,” she said.

“You’ve known me for maybe an hour or so. How could you tell that about someone so quickly?” I thought back to our previous interactions, and her getting free burgers out of the surly burger stand guy. I playfully shielded my face from her view with a hand and asked, “Are you a mind reader?”

She laughed. “If I was, do you really think that hand would block you from me?”

“It might.”

“It’s all about body language,” she said. “You can learn a lot about people by paying attention to your surroundings—“ she arched an eyebrow, “and not spending so much time worrying about things.”

Was she talking about me? Or was wondering about it completely missing the point of what she had said? We finished our food and threw away the trash. I looked up at the bright starry sky. I wasn’t used to seeing them so clearly, with all the light pollution the city threw off. But tonight they were shining with an intensity I’d never seen.

“Huh,” I mused. “Wasn’t it thundering earlier?”

Her eyes flicked up to the sky then back to where we were walking. She seemed to have ignored my comment, instead saying, “Let’s go check out the boardwalk.”

I shrugged. “If you want, sure. I mean, it’s not what it used to be, with all the shops closing down and everything.”

She reached for my hand and she led the way. I barely noticed where we were going as a flash of pink lightning split the sky above us. Lightning without clouds? Was that even possible? And it was pink. I’ll admit I wasn’t on the forefront of meteorological knowledge, but I’d never heard of pink lightning. Lilly’s pace quickened, but I barely registered this as we threaded our way through the unhurried throngs of people.

“It’s like trying to move through a herd of cattle,” she said through clenched teeth.

I chuckled. “I know, right? Why is it that the faster someone tries to get somewhere, the slower and more in-the-way everyone else gets?”

She didn’t answer. I saw her glance up at the sky when more lightning flashed, followed by that low, rumbling vibration from earlier. And why not? If lightning could happen on a cloudless, why not thunder? It stood to reason, I supposed.

Our pace quickened again. “What’s the hurry?” I asked, not too bothered by the light jog. I didn’t exercise nearly enough, and to be honest it felt refreshing.

“Um, there’s a place that’s closing soon.”

“Ah.” It was getting late. I wondered why she had put off going to this place until closing time.

The crowds of people no longer made way for us. We dodged through the meandering masses, until there wasn’t even room to do that.

“Johnny, this’ll sound shitty. But just shove through them.”

“What, why?” This seemed a bit much. Being in a hurry was one thing, but there was no need to be rude.

“Because they’re not going to move and we are not going to miss this deadline.”

A cold chill flooded through me when she said that. I still hadn’t thought of anything to write that article about. I was going to miss the submission deadline. For the first time, my procrastination-fueled muse had failed me. Would Eugene let me go if I was late? He couldn’t, I’d never been late before. He was an understanding fellow, once you got him to stop fretting.

“Why did you wait so long then?” I shouted, as we zig-zagged through the people. Lilly wasn’t shy about pushing people out of the way. I tried my best to find a way through without knocking anyone over.

“I thought we had more time!” She yelled, dropping my hand and turning her job into a run.

What. The. Hell. Was going on? “Hey!” I sped up and realized that the nice stranger act wasn’t going to cut it if I was going to keep up with Lilly. My shoulder banged off a tall guy’s arm, my elbow glanced an old lady’s side, I tripped over a kid’s sneaker. I yelled sorry to each one, but didn’t stop. Couldn’t stop. Everyone seemed even slower than before, like they were barely moving at all.

More lightning flashed. More thunder rumbled. Wind was whipping up now. I saw the lights of the city a few blocks down flicker and die. “This is a hell of a storm comin’, Lilly!” I called after her. “Are you sure this place is that important?”

She threw up her hands but kept running. “Sometimes I have my doubts!”

We reached the boardwalk where thankfully the people were thinning, but still no less sluggish. My eyes swept out over the water, trying to see if I could spot the storm on its way over the horizon. It was then I noticed the faint red light reflecting off the waves. A persistent light altogether unlike lightning.

“Don’t look up!” Lilly shouted slowing down a bit to grab my hand again.

Naturally, I looked up. The sky was filled with crackling red flares of light circling above the city in a spiral pattern. I felt myself slowing down and was powerless to look away from the spectacle. The spiral pattern of red light began to spin.

Lilly yanked my hand. “Johnny, we have to move!”

“Yeah…” I said, trying to tell my feet to work. But they would no longer listen.

Lilly grabbed my face and forced it down to hers. Her glowing blue eyes bore into mine. “You. Will. Follow. Now!”

And like that, my feet started up again.

Lilly pointed ahead as we picked up speed again. “There, the boat!”

I saw what she was pointing at. ‘Boat’ seemed a rather trivial word to describe it. ‘Tanker’ would be more accurate. We ran toward the massive ship at the edge of the dock. I wondered how anything of that size had ever fit in city’s docks. A gangplank was extended down to the dock.

A horrible tearing sound filled the air as the red spiral above us all resolved into a vortex. It reminded me of a tornado, but entirely upside down. The wind pelted us with paper and trash as we sprinted toward the ship. The gangplank rose from the dock and began to retract toward the ship.

“Shit!” Lilly swore, putting on another burst of speed. “Johnny…”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t hate me for this.”

The ship started to move away from the dock.

“What are you talking ab—“

I was yanked forward and off the ground by Lilly’s inhuman grip. She screamed with effort and flung me toward the retreating gangplank as the ship rolled past us.

“Grab on!” She cried. “And don’t let go!”

Everything moved in slow motion now. I flailed through the air, knowing full well that I didn’t have the wherewithal to catch a wooden plank in mid-air, not as unprepared as I was at right now. I could see the plank passing in front of me, then beneath me. I reached for the edge. And missed it entirely. My heart lurched as I spun past my target. The gangplank passed by and I kept going. Lilly had really put her back into that throw, I thought. I saw the red-lit water falling further and further away and realized Lilly had either guessed I would miss, or hadn’t been aiming for the gangplank at all. I spun around just in time to catch the railing of the ship. Right in my gut. The air left my lungs in a horrible rush and I doubled up in pain. The force of Lilly’s throw, however, kept me going over the railing. I flipped through the air and caught sight of the swirling vortex over the city, and I thought I saw something else, like something coming through. And then my spin brought me around only to see the deck rising toward me way too qui—

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Halfway Over – Chapter Two

The first thing I realized as I stepped out onto the busy nighttime streets was that I didn’t really have a destination or goal in mind. I stood in place in the middle of the sidewalk, trying to decide if I was hungry or just bored. Story of my life. I took a few steps in the direction the crowds were flowing a melted in with them, let the flow of passers-by pass me by. They moved with such energy, I could feel it thrum through me. The city had a pulse tonight and I was tapped into it on a strangely primal level.

I let the flow of people carry me along while my mind wandered, awaiting inspiration. My gaze drifted up to the towers of concrete and steel that rose up into the night sky, whose glass windows made the reflections of millions of street signs and headlights indistinguishable from the stars above. There really was nothing quite like a bustling city lit up at night. It was like a living snapshot of all we as a people had accomplished on our unending march to the future—

“Hey! You’re holding up the line!”

A sharp shove to my shoulder jostled me back into the mundane drudgery of the streets. I saw that I had somehow found myself to the front of the line at a hamburger stand, with a dozen or so hungry and increasingly grumpy city folk shuffling around behind me.

“Come on, order or get out of the line!”

I stepped up to the stand and surveyed the menu. The man behind the stand looked at me impatiently, his thick mustache twitching. Time was money, and I seemed to be wasting his. Time for a decision, stomach. My stomach responded with an indifferent shrug. I concluded I wasn’t hungry, just bored. Greasy food could wait. I stepped out of line and started down the street, ignoring the angry jeers of the people still in line.

I found my way back into the crowds, my mind once again jumping over the fence of discipline and running loose down the streets of imagination. I often wondered why I chose to live in a city, especially one as large as this one. I could do my job from anywhere with computer access. My apartment rent was hilariously overpriced. I couldn’t remember the last time I had called up a friend to go get a drink. And I the last family I had was half a continent away. But every time I stepped out and lost myself in a crowd on the move, it was like I was touching a groove of collective thought that did wonders for my writing. Others did yoga or meditated, so I supposed this was my version of it. I sometimes pictured it like I was part of the blood flowing through some wonderful, massive beast. It was the only time I felt truly connected to my fellow peoples.

I had no idea how long I wandered and wondered through the sea of humanity. Eventually, I was tossed ashore again, so to speak. Or more accurately, I was rudely shoved out of the crowd and found myself at the entrance to a rather damp and soiled alley. Halfway down the alleyway there was a blinking sign of red neon that read ‘Here’. Where the hell was I? I’d never heard of such a place. I shrugged and decided to check it out. After all, what was the worst that could happen? Aside from being jumped, mugged, stabbed, or any of the other hazards city dwellers the world over weathered on a nightly basis. I gingerly stepped around piles of trashbags, overturned trashcans, and feral trashcats as I approached the glowing beacon of red light. I saw it was hanging from the brick above a solid looking wooden door with an eye slat. I raised my hand to knock, but paused when I heard sounds from inside. It sounded like music, of a sort. But not the throbbing bass beat I normally associated with back alley clubs. I distinctly heard the sound of a guitar and tambourine. That was intriguing. I rapped smartly on the door and waited. No response. I knocked again and tried the eye slat. No response and the slat was sealed. I decided that this must be one of those private places, one where you could only get in if you knew someone who was a member, or some pretentious nonsense like that. Whatever, I’d find something else to get into—

The door swung open and a fellow with immaculately combed hair and a wild, bushy beard poked his head out.

“Ah, I thought I heard someone out here knocking.”

“Uh, hi.” I wasn’t sure what to say here. Was he a bouncer, a member, or someone else? Should I ask to come in or just take my business elsewhere? I shuffled nervously.

The man noticed my flighty posture and smiled knowingly. “Lost, huh? Come on in.” He held the door open.

I took a step, but paused. “Wait, what is this place?” As curious as I was, I didn’t want to find myself being led into some mafia gambling club or weird cult or something. Then again, if this was either of those places, I doubted they would just come out and tell me.

“This is Here,” he said. “It’s a refuge for likeminded people to gather and find inspiration together.”

“Ah.” This was still sounding like a cult to me.

He blinked, his smile faltering. “It’s a bar. People hang out here. Perform here. Dream up ideas here.”

That sounded a bit better. I was in desperate need of ideas, that was for sure. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to pop in and take a look. I reached for the door.

The man’s smile returned. He welcomed me in with a handshake and a clap on the arm. “Awesome, man. You’ll love it in here.”

He led me through a dark entryway and into a large windowless room, decorated with colored lights, tables, chairs, and plushy couches occupied to the last with excited customers. Works of post-modern art were thrown up onto the walls in a seemingly haphazard fashion, though I guessed it was meant to be purposeful, like the arrangement itself was the true art. The place was much quieter than I would have expected from the amount of people I saw. Most conversations were low murmurs or excited whispers. Then I heard the tambourine again and realized they were just being respectful to whoever was performing on stage.

The man nudged my arm. “Digging it?”

I wasn’t used to terms like that and answered lamely before I could stop myself. “Digging what?”

“It, man. It.”

Was this guy being intentionally vague? How could anyone stand to talk like this on a normal basis? I looked around, hoping to see if there was some obvious answer. “What is ‘it’?”

He pointed toward the performers on stage. I could see a tall fellow, dressed in clashing jeans and a business jacket, with a red scarf around his neck. He held a tambourine and banged it periodically, a look of rapturous intensity in his eyes as they swept the crowd. Behind him, half hidden from view from where I was standing, was a thing woman sitting on a chair, acoustic guitar in hand. She was dressed all in black, but also had a matching red scarf. Her hair was long and dark. Her face looked like a tambourine… at least until the other performer took a step to the side, revealing her actual face. She caught my eye for a moment as she took a breath before starting to… well, it wasn’t quite singing. I supposed it was more like she was speaking in a cadence, like reciting poetry. The only thing about it, though, was I couldn’t make out a thing she said. It was beautiful sounding, sure, but it sounded almost like she was speaking another language. Her gaze stayed on mine for a moment, and I’d like to say there was something profound that occurred. Something like my heart skipping a beat or sparks of attraction flaring. But nothing like that happened. She flicked her eyes elsewhere, and part of me wondered if it was me she had been looking at in the first place.

“Well?” The man beside me asked.

I had forgotten about him. “Oh. Yeah. Interesting stuff. Very…” I searched for the perfect term, “uh, avant-garde.”

He nodded approvingly, stroking his magnificent beard.

I leaned over, keeping my eyes on the stage. “So… what is it exactly that they’re doing?”

He chuckled. “Whatever they want. We try to encourage people to get up there and share whatever has been burning at their soul.”

“Ah.”

The performers finished the song/poem to a smatter of appreciative applause. I guessed this must have been their last piece, as the two gave a small wave of thanks to the crowd before exiting the stage. The woman looked over again and gave a nod. The man beside me nodded back.

“What’s your name, brother?”

I had completely forgotten to introduce myself. I felt like an asshole. “Oh, sorry. I’m Johnny.”

“Johnny, huh? Alright, sit tight.” He clapped my shoulder for the second time that evening, then went off to join the two performers as they disappeared into the crowd.

So, it was going to be like that, eh? Fine. I considered leaving. I had an article to write and crunch time was starting to bear down on me. But I still had no story. I sighed and flagged down the bartender for a drink. It was like my creative engine was burnt out. Every week I somehow managed to come up with something and put together quality content for Eugene’s website, and every week I went through this same problem. I always managed it, in the end. This time, though… I took a swig of my drink, not even remembering the bartender dropping it off. This time I wasn’t so confident I’d be able to pull that magic rabbit out of my ass by the due date, like before. And Eugene had sounded a bit more stressed about my deadline pushing than usual…

“Oy!” I looked over to see the bearded man waving at me from beside a table in the back of the room. The woman from the stage was seated there, her partner nowhere to be seen, and she saying something to the bearded man as he gestured for me to join them. “Come on over, man, grab your drink!”

I shrugged, previous concerns fading away. Why not? They both watched me intently as I picked my way through the crowd, trying not to spill my drink. I felt oddly self-conscious and had to actively watch where my feet were going, but I made it there in one piece.

“Hey, man!” The bearded man greeted loudly. He slapped my shoulder, causing my carefully protected drink to slosh out. He didn’t seem to notice. “Have a seat.”

The woman’s face was unreadable, I couldn’t tell if this was her idea or the bearded guy’s, or if she was even okay with it at all. “Yeah, alright.” I sat carefully, waiting for the woman to say something about this interloper joining the table.

She quirked up the side of her mouth, then addressed the bearded man instead in a light Irish accent. “Thanks, Beanbag. We’re good now.”

The bearded man, Beanbag I assumed, grinned. “Great! Let me know if you two need anything.” He spotted the male performer over at the side of the stage and left to go socialize with him.

I was now alone with her, and I had no idea what to say. “So… Beanbag, huh?”

She smiled again. “Yeah. Good guy. Owns the place.”

I couldn’t stop my jaw from dropping. “Who, him? He seems so…” I struggled to find a word that was accurate but still polite.

“Out there?” She offered.

Well, it was better than what I was going to say. “Yeah,” I agreed. “I’m assuming he wasn’t born with that name. Right?”

“With parents like his, it’s a distinct possibility,” she said. “But no, it’s because he’s really into that game where you bounce little sack of beans off your knees and elbows.”

I knew the one she spoke of. I hadn’t ever seen anyone out of their teens ever playing it, but who was I to judge what someone did in their free time? “He must really love it. Is he any good?”

“No, he’s dreadful.” She shook her head. “Absolutely dreadful.”

I nodded. “Ah, that’s a shame.” There didn’t really seem to be anything more to say on the subject.

She squared her shoulders. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I asked him to bring you over here.”

I blinked. “I didn’t really know who wanted me to come over. I guess I thought he had just gone to chat you up after your performance. Which was really good, by the way.” I added quickly.

She looked me up and down, eyebrow raised. “Oh, do you have an ear for poetry?”

I met her eyes, blue and brilliant now that I was only a few feet away and could properly appreciate them, and noted that her tone of voice had contained a note of challenge to it. I realized I was now facing a choice. In the past, this would have been the cue to summon my incredible talent for fabrication and charm my way into her heart. Or pants. Past results with other women had included both, much to my short term pleasure. However, the girls always ended up leaving after eventually seeing the charm for what it really was. Bullshit. Much to my long term detriment. Her eyes flashed and I had a horribly unsettling feeling in my brain that I could only describe as someone shining a giant spotlight down on my thoughts. Maybe bullshit wasn’t the way to go here…

“I don’t,” I confessed. “I’ll be honest, I actually couldn’t even understand a word you were saying up there. But it sounded beautiful and you had mine and everyone else’s attention.”

She didn’t respond for a moment. Was she turned off by my admission of ignorance? Should I have gone for confident bullshit? She reached over and took my glass in her hand, studying the contents closely. “It was Gaelic.”

Now, I know she didn’t say ‘garlic’, but it was the only word I’d heard that matched what she said. I got a sense of touchiness about the subject and decided that making any jokes about garlic would not be appreciated here. I decided that sticking with an honest lack of knowledge would be the most diplomatic way to go. “I’ve never heard of that. I assume it’s another language?”

Her eyes focused on mine through the liquid filled glass in her hand. “It is. And more.” Was she being intentionally vague to draw me in for more questions, or was she being terse and wanting me to drop the subject?

A faint rumbling shook the building and the lights flickered. Everyone froze in place, someone yelped in surprise as a glass dropped to the floor. The lights came back on and people started moving around again, sharing nervous laughter with each other.

The woman acted as if she hadn’t noticed anything awry just happen.

“Must be storming outside,” I said. “Weird though, because it was a clear night when I came in just a bit ago.”

She down the contents of my glass in one go. I hadn’t even had a chance to get drunk off that yet. She set down the empty glass and leaned forward. “Let me see your eyes.”

That wasn’t a request I was prepared to hear. But to my surprise, I found myself obeying. Her blue orbs held mine and I felt a bit of a spark. Not like a romantic one or anything, but more like a literal one. Like a charge of static electricity zipped through me. The lights dimmed around us, and the rest of the bar grew blurry. The sounds of people around us quieted to a dull roar, like I was hearing them from underwater. What the hell was going on? I hadn’t drank nearly enough to start blacking out, and I didn’t think I had been drugged… As the shadows strengthened around us, I saw her hair blending into the darkness and her pale face, still so clear in my vision, took on a disturbing skull-like quality. In her sunken eye sockets, her eyes flared bright, glowing with intensity. I tried to shake my head, to clear it all away. Maybe I had been drugged somehow? But my muscles no longer heeded my call.

The woman spoke. I don’t remember what words she said, or honestly if she even used words.

I answered in the same way she had asked. Whatever it was I said was gone from my mind immediately after they were thought.

The skull with the flaming eyes held my very soul in its regard and then let go.

I blinked and then found myself looking once again at the face of a normal, beautiful woman, surrounded by the noise of people in a back alley art bar. The hair on my arms was raised and I could see goosebumps all over my skin. My head swam, like I had just awakened from a dream that fled memory the moment is was recalled. Maybe I needed a break from work. From the city. Eugene would probably go into conniptions if one of his writers failed to meet the deadline, but clearly I was in need of some rest. Something was up tonight, and I wasn’t entirely sure it was all in my head.

“Are you alright, Johnny?” I found that my hand had somehow ended up across the table and was now in hers. Her thumb caressed the side of mine. I felt a thrill go through me.

I swallowed. “Yeah, I’m…” Wait, how did she know my name? I never told her. Maybe Beanbag had mentioned it to her. Yeah, that had to be it. But I still didn’t know hers. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I ever caught your name.”

The side of her mouth quirked up again. “It’s Lilly.” She stood, still holding my hand in hers and gave a light tug. “Come on, Johnny. Let’s go have some fun while we still can.”

Halfway Over – Chapter One

It was the end of the world.

Or at least one would have thought so, judging by the absurd number of missed messages I had from my boss Eugene when I walked in my apartment door. Setting my keys down on the counter, I scrolled through the myriad texts. The more recent ones had a definite sense of urgency and even panic. Another notification popped up letting me know I had several voicemails. I checked my missed calls and, naturally, they were all from Eugene, as well. It figured, the one time I forgot my phone at home while running errands would be the time all hell broke loose.

I sat down on my couch with a weary sigh. I briefly wrestled with calling the boss back, but decided to wait. It was probably nothing. After all, Eugene cried wolf several times a month whenever deadlines were due, as if I had ever failed to get an article in on time. But since the project was due tomorrow, I supposed it was time to get started on it. Like a champ.

The phone began to buzz. I answered, not bothering to even look at the caller ID. I had a pretty good guess as to who was calling. “Hello, Eugene.”

“Johnny, thank goodness. Where the ‘H’ have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for hours! Didn’t you get any of my messages?”

“Nope, not a one. I’ve been having issues with my phone lately.” That’s it, Johnny. Plausible deniability by way of unreliable technology. I had learned the hard way that it was easier to blame my phone or computer or internet for not being able to be reached than it was to waste time assuaging Eugene’s anxieties for the umpteenth time. That latter option ended up turning five minute work updates into hour long therapy sessions, and I wasn’t being paid to be my boss’s budget psychiatrist.

“Cheese and crackers, Johnny, with the way your phone has been acting lately maybe you should get a new one?”

I considered a few smartass responses to this, but something in his voice told me this may not be the best option. It was more cracked and higher pitched than it normally was. “Maybe I should. What’s going on, Eugene? I can practically feel you sweating through the phone.”

“Oh, Johnny, you know how it is.” There was a loud electronic hiss, the sound of a heavy huff of breath from the other end. “The separation isn’t going well, and Gregory is trying to bully me into giving him part of the website again.”

I, in fact, didn’t know how it was. I had never been married, therefore had no idea how separations were supposed to go. And as far as Gregory goes, I assumed this was Eugene’s husband from the context, but I couldn’t recall much about him from previous conversations. The details of who ran the website didn’t bother me, as long as I still got paid. But I had to move the conversation along now or he’d talk himself into a circle and we’d be here for ages. “Ah dang, I’m sorry to hear it, boss. I assume you’re calling me specifically because tomorrow is…” I purposely trailed off, hoping the prompt would force Eugene’s mindset back to business.

“The due date. Yes, yes. Please tell me you have the article finished and ready to go.”

I thought of the empty document page I would be staring at whenever I got around to booting up my computer as I answered, “You betcha.”

“Oh, that’s great! Can you send it now?” There was no mistaking the relief in his voice.

“Well, Eugene, you know I take pride in my work.”

A pause. “Yeah?”

“And we go through this with every deadline.”

A sigh. “Yeah…”

“I always turn it in the morning of, so I can spend a final evening going over it for grammar and spelling mistakes, factual errors, the whole gamut. And have I ever let you down?”

“No, of course not.”

“Exactly.” This was getting old. I wondered briefly if Gregory would be this overbearing as a boss. “So, if it’s okay, I’d like to jump off here and do some proofreading, alright?”

“Yes, please do. And if you can get it to me tonight, that would be a load off my mind, Johnny.”

That definitely wouldn’t be happening. “I’ll see what I can do. You’ve got to stop worrying so much about this stuff. You’re gonna kill yourself.”

There was a nervous laugh from the other end. “You’re right. It’s just that Gregory is just waiting for me to make a mistake, and—“

Here we go again. “Alrighty. Goodbye, Eugene.” I hit the disconnect button, knowing the delay would awkwardly cut the boss off in the middle of his sentence.

“–none of the other staff have submitted—“

I tossed the phone onto the cushion and made my way over my work desk to ponder over what my latest piece of nonsense would be. I flipped open my notebook and thumbed through page after page of indecipherable hieroglyphics I called handwriting, attempting to find an idea that I hadn’t yet written about. It wasn’t like I could go out and scoop breaking news, interview a celebrity, review a new car, or critique a new film. I had to write about hauntings, demonic possessions, poltergeistic occurrences, and other things that went bump in the night. The problem was, all of that had already been written about. It was a frustrating and unique problem in my line of work. I mean sure, there were always new stories of people coming forward with new spooky sightings, but it always ended up being the same story. Same creaking footsteps upstairs. Same doors slamming shut. Same stigmata on hands and feet. Whether these people were lying, delusional, or actual victims of supernatural zaniness, there was simply no imagination to it anymore.

I shut the notebook and stared at the blank white screen, waiting for inspiration. The living room clock tick-tocked monotonously. I cracked my knuckles and primed my fingers above the keyboard. Tick-tock. A cricket chirped outside my window. My eyes were riveted to the screen as I worked. Tick-tock. Some passerby in the hallway outside my door cleared their throat loudly. I felt like I had been at this for hours. Tick-tock. The sun rose in the sky, then began to set. Tick-tock. I stood up, walked calmly over to the clock, and firmly removed its batteries. No more tick-tock. I had had enough tick-tock.

“You seem bored, Johnny,” an oily little voice drawled from beside my ear.

“I am,” I said, noticing the tiny version of me dressed up like the devil and lounging on my shoulder. “What’s it to ya?”

“Oh, nothing. You’re not getting much work done, are you?”

“What are you talking about? I spent all day—“ My eyes caught sight of blank document on the computer screen. I had apparently wasted a whole day brainstorming. “Huh.”

“You’ve still got time to finish, you know.”

“Of course, I do.”

“But you can’t force inspiration.”

He had a point but I could tell when I was being led. Curiosity got the better of me, so I decided to see where I was being led to. “I’m listening.”

“Look,” he waved a hand, “just go out and get a burger. Call up a friend, whatever. Just take a break.”

I did need a break. But I knew me pretty well, and if I kept putting off the article there was a fair chance that it wouldn’t be done. Or even started. Truth be told, I struggled a bit with procrastination, but I also did my best work under looming deadlines.

“If you wait a bit more to write, you know it’ll be better.” It was like he could read my mind.

“Okay.”

“Just here me out—“ The little devil-me broke off as he realized what I had said. “What, just like that?”

I shrugged.

“I gotta admit, Johnny, I wasn’t expecting this to be so easy.” He frowned. “I had a whole manipulative spiel thought up and everything. Set aside the whole evening, ya know. Just in case.”

I spread my hands. “I don’t know what to tell you.” If I hadn’t had the inclination to coddle Eugene earlier, I certainly didn’t have it now to buck up a crestfallen figment of my imagination. I picked up the devil-me and traded him for the keys on my counter.

Devil-Me squared his shoulders and rallied magnificently. “Good. Great, even.” He clapped his hands together. “Okay! We’ll have a night on the town. You’ll be there. I’ll be there. And lordy knows what sorts of mischief we’ll get into.”

I headed for the door. “Right, well if you’re coming along then do what you gotta do.”

“Ah, of course!”

I glanced back at the now empty counter, and wondered if the pressure was getting to me. Maybe I really did need a night out to blow off some steam. The article could wait.